Chambal Revisited | Travel & Tourism |
Suvendu Debnath (Bengali original) | Trans. Nabanita Sen Gupta |
Hawakal Publishers (Feb 2022) | ISBN-10: 9391431038 | ISBN-13: 978-9391431037 |
Pp 232 | PB | ₹ 450
Fascinating stories with a veil of fantasy
“Most of us do not know why those who are referred to as dacoits by rest of India, considered themselves baghis. Baghi –the word meant rebel. They were those who revolted against the atrocities of rich zamindars, police, and administrators, and jumped into the beehed. They were the ones who were called baghis.”
It has always been fascinating to hear stories about bandits and somehow a veil of fantasy and imagination has always been a part of the narratives heard by generations like the one I come from. For those of us growing up in the nineties the word daku/bandit was akin to that of characters to be found and read only in books or at the most one heard about the real-life Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi or Veerappan. The distance that has always remained between the real-life baghis and those growing up far away also created a sense of fantasy with regards to these real-life people. It was not until Sujit Saraf’s novel The Confession of Sultana Daku (2009) that one turned one’s attention back to this section of people. The novel had looked at one of the most dreaded bandits of the 1920s and kept its readers enthralled by the account that gave rise to one such daku. A lot of research work has been done and books have been written looking at bandits in India but in the contemporary context, Suvendu Debnath’s book stands out. The reader is given a comprehensive view of not just the areas in Chambal that were under the control and command of the baghis who began to emerge from 12~th century onwards but it also looks at the lives of the baghis from a close lens. The book reveals how much exploitation of the poor by the rich has gone on for years as well as the revolts that came up against such injustices.
“Chambal has always offered refuge to the common man caught in land feuds, stranded between the police and the mercenary.”
The excellent translation into English by Nabanita Sengupta opens up the world of the baghis for the readers in an eye-opening manner.
“…But they were baghis, not dacoits. Dacoits are brutal and unprincipled. But Chambal used to have baghis – they were ruthless but not cruel and had very strong values. They never looted the poor. They were against the crimes and injustices by zamindars.”
The baghis were not only feared but also respected and somewhat turned into folk heroes. Historian Eric Hobsbawm was amongst the first theorists who wrote about this phenomenon – the positive reception that the bandits had amongst the people. I am using the term bandits here as it is the one usually looked at and mentioned by the theorists, and to help understand the idea behind the admiration that they commanded; which of course takes on a new meaning when we use the term baghi. The idea of bandits rising against the ruling classes/government has been termed as social banditry where the local people form a social bond with the bandits which at times had obviously led to revolts against the ruling classes. So, it is interesting to note how the definition of a bandit changes in the eyes of different sections/classes of people – they turn into criminals in the eyes of the elite whilst earning admiration to a certain extent by the exploited classes as a baghi also comes from the exploited class. But there are those who turn to this life due to them being victims of injustice that leads them to take up arms against their exploiters or they turn to this life to seek revenge and the power that being a bandit wields helps them get justice, in their sense of the definition.
“As long as there is injustice in Chambal, baghis will be born…. No one comes to the beehed for fun.”
Debnath has meticulously outlined both these choices through this book. The research done for this book is detailed and comprehensive and every chapter talks about the life of a different baghi. The book does not deal only with the exploits of the baghi but looks at the reasons behind taking up this life; the life when one turns into a baghi and the life post turning away from it. The book not just covers lives of the male baghis but there are chapters in the book dedicated to the women who through unfortunate circumstances became baghis. The fascinating as well as tragic story of Putli Bai, the first woman dacoit of Chambal has been explained in detail in the book.
The author comes in close contact with real life bandits and these accounts are breath-taking ones.
“I had spent a night in the house of one of the greatest dacoits of Chambal, heard the story of a dead and erstwhile dacoit from another ex-dacoit, and now I was heading towards the unknown in the dead of the night, surrounded by dacoits who had a heavy price over their heads.”
But it also brings up the humane side that somehow gets lost under the definition of what or who is a baghi.
“Though he was living in the forest and running his gang according to the rules, in his heart he wanted to move out of the beehed. In those days, he often used to spread rumours about his own death and secretly went to the city to spend some time with his family.”
In the introduction to the book Telling Lives in India: Biography, Autobiography and Life History, David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn observe that when it comes to life narratives, it is very difficult to disassociate oneself from the society that one is a part of as on one hand, there is a threat that the collective might subsume the self while on the other hand, according to the theorists, is the individual self that can be considered a “rampant” one if left unchecked. Therefore, while interpreting the narratives from India, they observed that “…Indians present individual lives within a network of other lives and that they define themselves in relation to larger frames of reference, especially those of family, kin, caste, religion, and gender.” What becomes a fascinating tale that attracts people to talk about the baghis is them standing outside the norms/rules of the society that everyone else has to follow, but not them.
The one feature that stands out and probably can be considered the unsung baghi in this entire book is the beehed. It is this landscape where people had vanished into and emerged as baghis and it is this landscape that remains unaffected by time and people and remains a silent witness to the several baghis who created a name for themselves. The author brings the beehed up close for his readers to take a look at this fascinating low valley area in the Chambal region and one realises the sedimentation of years that have created not just the baghis but also the beehed and how the identity of both is, and remains, intertwined.
“There was a saying in Chambal that in a baghi’s life there are just two dates –the date in which he jumps into the beehed, and the date when his body is brought to the city wrapped in neem leaves.”
Issue 103 (May-Jun 2022)